Nearly a quarter of drivers in the UK believe smart motorways are unsafe, and many do not understand the rules around hard shoulder running, according to recent research by Kwik Fit.
More than half of the motorists surveyed avoid driving in the hard shoulder on smart motorways, due to confusion about when it can be used as an active traffic lane.
What is a smart motorway?
Smart motorways were developed as a means of reducing congestion, managing traffic and maximising motorway capacity, and have been on the increase since the first smart motorway stretch of the M42 opened in 2006.
There are three types of smart motorway:
- Dynamic hard shoulder: where the hard shoulder is temporarily opened up to traffic
- All lane running: where the full width of the road is usable with emergency refuge areas alongside
- Controlled motorway: with three or more lanes, a hard shoulder and variable speed limits
Smart motorways include overhead electronic signs that display variable speed limits, lane closures, and may convey messages about accident reports or other traffic-related news.
Hard shoulder use
Kwik Fit’s research showed that ‘all lane running’ is mostly misunderstood by drivers, with 56% avoiding using the hard shoulder on a smart motorway even when it’s open for use to reduce congestion.
Only a third of the drivers surveyed could correctly identify which smart motorway sign indicated an open hard shoulder. 15% believed a blank sign above the hard shoulder means it’s open to traffic, when in fact this indicates that normal motorway rules apply and it is only available as a hard shoulder. Blank signs above other lanes indicate normal conditions, i.e. national speed limits.
Earlier this year, RAC research reported that a fifth of drivers put their lives at risk by ignoring ‘red X’ signs on smart motorways. It’s illegal to drive in a lane closed by a red X sign, and drivers risk a fixed penalty of up to £100 and three points on their licence1.
Are smart motorways a danger?
Kwik Fit’s recent survey comes in a month in which Classic Car Buyer reported that the widow of a man killed on a smart motorway plans to sue Highways England for corporate manslaughter. Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeneau were struck and killed by a lorry when they got out to exchange details following a minor collision. There have been four reported deaths in the past year between junctions 31 and 35 of the M1; South Yorkshire police are putting more traffic officers on patrol along stretches of the motorway where the hard shoulder has been replaced with a live lane.
Following Kwik Fit’s research Highways England’s chief highways engineer Mike Wilson, speaking to The Sunday Times Driving, said, “Motorways in this country are among the very safest roads in the world. Highways England would never carry out a major improvement scheme without being confident that we would maintain or enhance this position. Evidence indicates that smart motorways are helping to improve safety. The first nine of the latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25 per cent.”  He added that Highways England continues to monitor the safety performance of smart motorways, and is rolling out enhancements to improve the driver experience.
Safety for classic owners
Classic Car Buyer in its 11th September issue urged classic owners to make sure their vehicles are well maintained and kept as safe as possible, to minimise the risk of breakdowns on the motorway. This could include the retro-fitting of additional safety features such as seatbelts, not always fitted in original pre-1965 cars, rear fog and hazard warning lights, again not standard on cars until the 1980s.
Enforceable speed limit changes
It’s worth noting that speed reductions on smart motorways are enforceable by law, and motorists caught exceeding the variable speed limits can be issued with a fine.
Variable speed limits on smart motorways are designed to manage the flow of traffic more efficiently and safely, and are often put in place due to accidents, or an increased risk of accidents due to traffic volumes.
A speed limit displayed inside a red circle is legally enforceable; once it no longer applies, overhead displays will show the national speed limit sign, and if no speed limit is displayed at all then the national speed limit applies.
Speed cameras in operation on smart motorways can still catch drivers exceeding the national speed limit even when no variable limits are in place – drivers should be aware that if they break the law they are open to harsher punishments since the speeding sentencing structure was revised in April 2017.
Using smart motorways: more resources
Several organisations have produced guidance information for drivers on how to correctly use smart motorways; we have included links to some of these below.
Kwik Fit’s guide to smart motorways
How to drive safely and legal on England’s smart motorways: gov.uk advice
RAC: how to use smart motorways https://youtu.be/ANmoyaDsr28